See the U.S. Department of State Investment Climate Statement for Panama.
Panama’s investment climate is mixed. Over the last decade, Panama was one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest growing economies. Its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is outpacing most other countries in the region, with a 15.3 percent growth rate in 2021 (after a contraction of 17.9 percent in 2020) and a projected growth rate of 7.8 percent for 2022, according to the World Bank. Panama also has one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the region and has several investment incentives, including a dollarized economy, a stable democratic government, the world’s second largest free trade zone, and 14 international free trade agreements. Although Panama’s market is small, with a population of just over 4 million, the Panama Canal provides a global trading hub with incentives for international trade. However, Panama’s structural deficiencies weigh down its investment climate with high levels of corruption, a reputation for government non-payment, a poorly educated workforce, a weak judicial system, and labor unrest. Panama’s presence on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list since June 2019 for systemic deficiencies in combatting money laundering and terrorist financing increases the risk of investing in Panama, notwithstanding the government’s ongoing efforts to increase financial transparency.
The government is eager for international investment and has several policies in place to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). As such, it continues to attract one of the highest rates of FDI in the region, with $4.6 billion in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. As of March 18, 2022, Panama’s sovereign debt rating remains investment grade, with ratings of Baa2 (Moody’s), BBB- (Fitch), and BBB (Standard & Poor’s with a negative outlook).
Panama’s high vaccination rates of 80 percent of the eligible population with at least one dose and 70 percent with at least two doses as of March 21 have contributed to its economic recovery. As the global economy rebounded, Panama’s services and infrastructure-reliant industries bounced back significantly in 2021. Sectors with the highest economic growth in 2021 included mining (148 percent increase), construction (29 percent), commerce (18 percent), industrial manufacturing (11 percent), and transportation, storage, and communications (11 percent). Panama ended 2021 with a year-on-year inflation rate variation of 2.6 percent, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC).
The government’s assertion that it is climate-negative creates opportunities for economic growth, aided by laws 37, 44, and 45 that provide incentives to promote investment in clean energy sources, specifically wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass/biofuels.
Panama’s investment climate is threatened, however, by high government fiscal deficits, unemployment, and inequality. The pandemic resulted in government debt ballooning by $3 billion in 2021 to over $40 billion. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at around 64 percent, well above the 46 percent it stood at before the pandemic. Unemployment peaked at 18.5 percent in September 2020, a 20-year high, but has since fallen to 11.3 percent as of October 2021. Yet high levels of labor informality persist. Additionally, Panama is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the 14th highest Gini Coefficient and a national poverty rate of 14 percent. The World Bank’s 2022 Global Economic Prospects Report and the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report noted that Panama should focus on inclusive economic growth and structural reforms to avoid economic stagnation and an employment crisis.